Jenson Button has warned McLaren-Mercedes fans that barring 'very unusual circumstances', neither he nor team-mate Lewis Hamilton will be out-qualifying the dominant Red Bulls in F1 2011 anytime soon – but just such 'unusual circumstances', he concedes, could well arise in Monaco this weekend.
Red Bull Racing has claimed pole position for every grand prix thus far this season, with a commanding gap over all of their rivals in qualifying each time except Malaysia. In last weekend's Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, the margin was the best part of a second between Mark Webber on pole and third-placed Hamilton – but not for the first time in 2011, that advantage curiously evaporated 24 hours later, as the 2008 world champion harried Sebastian Vettel right the way to the chequered flag.
The discrepancy between RBR's qualifying and race pace is, reflects Button, somewhat bewildering – and the British star fears it could be some time before McLaren gets on terms sufficiently to truly challenge the runaway world championship leaders on Saturday afternoons.
“We're not really any closer to understanding that,” he told a special Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes Phone-In Session. “They are so fast in qualifying, but I don't know the reason why. We think they have a lot more downforce than us, but we don't understand why they don't have that pace in the race. It's a tough one.
“Maybe their car is not so good on the tyres – maybe they degrade quicker. In a few races this year, we've been able to race them, but in qualifying, we're a long way off. There's a difference in lap time in qualifying of around a second, and we're not going to be able to find that for six or seven races. I can't see us in the near future beating them in qualifying, unless we get very unusual circumstances, as we may do in Monaco.”
Although he has been out-qualified four times out of five to-date in 2011 by Hamilton, Button insists he is 'reasonably happy' with his form this year and now feels 'a lot more comfortable and definitely more consistent' inside the MP4-26 than he did, pointing out that on occasion, there has been barely a cigarette paper to choose between the two countrymen.
The 31-year-old is also one of only six drivers on the current grand prix grid to have triumphed around the narrow, tortuous streets of Monte Carlo before – the other five being Hamilton, Webber, Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher and Jarno Trulli. Notably, Vettel is not amongst that elite group, but Button insists that does not mean the young German will be any less of a threat than normal this weekend, even if he might face more of an internecine battle.
“I think experience always helps in Monaco,” he acknowledged, “but Sebastian has been around for a couple of years now and he's been very quick round Monaco. Mark did beat him last year, but that doesn't mean it's a bad circuit for him. I still think he'll be competitive, but we might see Mark challenging him more than in previous races, which is exactly what we need to put Sebastian under a bit of pressure – and you never know what might happen if we can start putting him under pressure.”
As to Schumacher – a man just one victory short of equalling the record held by the late Ayrton Senna in Monaco, although arguably now unlikely ever to match it – Button is swift to defend the most successful driver in F1 history against the barrage of criticism that he has received for his performances this season.
“When I was racing against him and he was at Ferrari, he had a very competitive car and he knew at almost every race he went to that he had a chance of winning,” mused the nine-time grand prix-winner. “It's a very different situation now. For me, over the twelve years that I've raced in the sport, it's become a lot more competitive – and it's a lot tougher now for a driver who has spent three years away to come back.
“I don't know if Michael is still as good as he was in his twenties. I think the sport is just more competitive now, and he has a very competitive team-mate in Nico [Rosberg]. He's racing against some very competitive drivers, and although he's not setting the world alight, I think he's doing a pretty good job.”